Overseas Experience Trail: Key West
Key West, where the Florida Keys Overseas Highway ends at Mile Marker 0, blends 19th-century charm with a laid-back contemporary atmosphere. Visitors to continental America’s southernmost city will find palm-shaded streets, picturesque historic homes with “gingerbread” trim, a nightly waterfront sunset celebration and a flourishing arts community.
The island offers environmental attractions and eco-experiences, a lively multicultural culinary scene and sites to tour including the 1930s home of literary legend Ernest Hemingway and the “vacation White House” of former President Harry Truman.
The best way to enjoy Key West is to embrace the easygoing vibe, glean tips from friendly locals about their favorite places and pursuits, and experience both well-known and off-the-beaten-path offerings.
For example …
Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. At the gateway to Key West lies a secluded 15-acre conservation habitat and subtropical botanical garden. Just off College Road at mile marker 5 bayside, the garden features more than 6,000 rare and endangered plants and trees, and provides habitat for 39 butterfly species and 202 native and migratory bird species. Explore 12 self-guided nature trails and boardwalks, two1.5-acre butterfly habitats, two freshwater ponds, a Cuban palm exhibit and more. keywest.garden
Key West Garden Club at West Martello Tower. Spend a lazy afternoon at the tranquil natural spot that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean where White Street meets Atlantic Boulevard. West Martello Tower is a never-used Civil War–era fort whose weathered brick walls frame exotic orchids and bromeliads, rare and indigenous palms and plants, a peace garden with labyrinth, a butterfly garden and a white perfume garden. The oceanfront gazebo offers breeze-cooled serenity. keywestgardenclub.com
Curry Mansion. Discover the legacy of Key West’s first millionaire, William Curry, at the inn and museum located at 511 Caroline St. The grand Victorian-style mansion, with its period furnishings and decor, spacious verandahs, unique “widow’s walk” and gingerbread-adorned exterior, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Historians believe Key lime pie was originally created in the Curry Mansion kitchen. The mansion’s antique-filled public areas are open for tours. currymansion.com
Honest Eco Sustainable Nature Tours. Take an unforgettable voyage aboard SQUID, Key West's first electric-powered charter boat, during an Honest Eco dolphin watch and guided snorkel excursion. The unique vessel was built by Captain Billy Litmer, Honest Eco’s founder and a biologist and passionate environmentalist, and is docked at 231 Margaret St. in the Historic Seaport. Equipped with Sunflare solar panels, SQUID provides an extraordinary wildlife experience while having little impact on the environment and its creatures. honesteco.org
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. Head to “Fort Zach” at 601 Howard England Way to spend an afternoon swimming and lazing beside the Atlantic Ocean. The park is renowned for its shady, breeze-cooled picnic area and its 1,000-foot beach that Key Westers regard as the island’s best. Snorkel in the relatively deep near-shore water, spotting colorful tropical fish around rocky promontories, or explore the weathered Civil War–era fort that gave the park its name. fortzacharytaylor.com
Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. Walk among hundreds of living butterflies at the state-of-the-art solarium and nature exhibit at 1316 Duval St. In the soaring glass-domed tropical butterfly habitat, you can observe butterflies from 50 to 60 species in a lush rainforest-like setting, alongside tiny exotic birds and two glorious pink flamingoes — who also star in daily “Flamingle” encounters. Don’t miss the on-site gallery and displays outlining butterflies’ role in the natural world. keywestbutterfly.com
Historic Old Town. Take a morning stroll or bike ride through Key West’s Old Town, the largest predominantly wooden historic district in the entire United States. Allow yourself to get lost and simply wander, discovering restored Victorian homes and cottages along narrow lanes, chatting with locals you meet and enjoying the fragrance of flowers blooming behind white picket fences. And don’t forget to stop for Cuban coffee and cheese toast at one of many neighborhood emporiums.
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. View treasures and artifacts from the Spanish galleons Nuestra Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita, shipwrecked off Key West in 1622, at the 200 Greene St. museum. The facility’s 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities include gold and silver bars, coins, weapons and more recovered by shipwreck salvor Mel Fisher and his crew in the 1980s. Equally compelling are artifacts from the English merchant slave ship Henrietta Marie, sunk off Key West in 1700. melfisher.org
Key West Food Tour. Savor the flavors of the island city on a stroll-and-taste exploration of cuisine and culture created and curated by third-generation island native Analise Andrews. Several themed walking tours are offered, with guides leading small groups of participants to multiple local emporiums for samples of food and libations. As well as experiencing the rich culinary scene, guests gain insights into Key West’s vibrant heritage and easygoing way of life. keywestfoodtours.com
Key West Lighthouse & Keepers Quarters. Completed in 1848 and standing at 938 Whitehead St., the lighthouse guided mariners through Key West waters until it was decommissioned in 1969. Climb an 88-step spiral staircase to the observation platform for a panoramic view of Key West, learn about courageous male and female lighthouse keepers, and observe historic artifacts, photos and journals. In addition, small groups can book the exclusive 90-minute Key West Lighthouse Sunset Experience. kwahs.org/museums/lighthouse-keepers-quarters/visit
Take an unforgettable voyage aboard SQUID, Key West's first electric-powered charter boat, during an Honest Eco dolphin watch and guided snorkel excursion.
View treasures and artifacts from the Spanish galleons Nuestra Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita, shipwrecked off Key West in 1622, at the 200 Greene St. museum. Image: Mel Fisher Maritime Museum